Wednesday, January 19, 2011

I did write yesterday, and finished a poem under such conditions of concentration that I forgot to go to Paul's band-class open house. But it was snowing hard, and he forgot about the invitation too and wants to quit playing the trumpet anyway. So apparently there was no parental harm done.

Paul might be lackadaisical about trumpeting, but he does continue to love the piano. And speaking of the piano, last weekend Tom and I cleaned out some closets, and in the process I rediscovered a stack of ancient sheet music--some from my mother's 1940s music lessons, some even older, from the 1920s: a sample of the many, many things that occupied the Pennsylvania farmhouse-with-stuffing that my grandfather bought in the 1960s. (My essay about one of the books from this farmhouse is forthcoming from the Southern Review this spring.) Among those 1920s songs are "Roll 'Em, Girls," a ditty about flappers who roll down their stockings, and "Barney Google," which my sister and I used to make our mother play for us because we thought it was the silliest song we'd ever heard. But what has been occupying me in the snowy evenings is the collection of Irving Berlin waltzes, copyright 1925, which I've been slowly picking out, chord by chord.

Though I'm a fairly good violinist, I'm a self-taught pianist who practices only in fits and spurts. I get lost when I try to read music off a double piano staff, and I don't really understand the hand positions for chord progressions. So my performance of "Always" does sound as if it's being played underwater. Nonetheless, there's something very gratifying about producing that 1920s Broadway sound from my own fingertips. Also, it goes quite well with a reading of Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night.

Speaking of Fitzgerald, I should make it clear that I in no way meant to be strident about him in yesterday's post. Writers are products of their times. Unless they happen to be George Eliot, they're no smarter about human relations than anybody else is. And even George Eliot had man trouble.

Good writers are good because they write well, not because they're socially prescient. Dickens dealt clumsily with his Jewish characters. Malcolm X was blind about women. Trollope had rude things to say about "sooty complexions." Etcetera, etcetera. Nonetheless, when one is personally struck in the face, it hurts, even 90 years after the fact. And when one is more subtly injured, one can almost begin to believe that the writer is correct. For instance, of the three most attractive women characters in Tender Is the Night, Fitzgerald says:

Their point of resemblance to each other, and their difference from so many American women, lay in the fact that they were all happy to exist in a man's world--they preserved their individuality through men and not by opposition to them. They would all three have made alternatively good courtesans or good wives, not by the accident of birth but through the greater accident of finding their man or not finding him.

The more I think about that passage, the less comfortable I become about myself. I'm not sure if this a good reaction or a bad one, but it's a true one, and it disturbs me. Then again, if one task of literature is to make us uneasy about our assumptions, then Fitzgerald has done his job.

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